It was a big night for small islands at Olympic Stadium on Monday.
Athletes from the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Jamaica wrapped themselves in their flags or heard their national anthems echo over Olympic Park.
They imported warmth to chilly London with their smiles, their tears and their celebrations of home sweet home.
Kirani James is a teenager from Grenada, which is always described as “tiny Grenada.” But James proved he runs with a giant heart when he commanded the excruciating 400 meters from start to finish in a time of 43.94 seconds to win the first Olympic medal for Grenada, population 110,000. The “spice island” will be known for more than nutmeg thanks to James, who could be just the runner to break Michael Johnson’s world record.
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“This is not just for me, this is for my whole country,” said James, the first non-American to break
44 seconds. “I am so excited. Everyone in Grenada will be proud. They will be having a street party, everyone getting merry.”
Felix Sanchez splits his time between Los Angeles and Santo Domingo, where the national track stadium is named after him. With a picture of his late grandmother pinned inside his singlet and “ abuela” written on his spikes, he won a second Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles eight years after he won his first.
Sanchez wept on the medal podium. He was thinking of his grandmother, Lillian Morcello, who died on the eve of his qualifying heat in Beijing in 2008, where he lost, badly, burdened by grief.
When it began to drizzle Monday, Sanchez couldn’t contain his emotions. The raindrops, he said, were “my abuela’s tears of joy from heaven.”
Sanchez, 34 — who was born in New York after his parents moved there, grew up in San Diego and planned to play baseball until he broke his arm — ran a flawless race in 47.63 while some of his opponents struggled to clear hurdles in the stretch. Javier Culson of Puerto Rico placed third to win the first Olympic track and field medal for “ la isla del encanto.”
Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic took second behind James in the 400, Lalonde Gordon of Trinidad and Tobago was third and Chris Brown of the Bahamas was fourth.
Santos and James are both 19, and the London Games could mark the start of an interesting rivalry. Santos said he ran barefoot as a kid.
“The greatest pain I have suffered in my life didn’t come from an injury,” he said. “It is called hunger. It was my companion when I started. I was really poor. Sometimes my feet would bleed until I wanted to cry.”
James grew up in the fishing village of Gouyve. He spent a year at the University of Alabama and still trains with Harvey Glance. On Sunday, he asked Oscar Pistorius to exchange bibs with him after the semifinals and graciously expressed his admiration for the South African double amputee, calling him “an inspiration.”
LaShawn Merritt’s DNF in the 400 qualifier (hamstring injury) meant it was the first time in Olympic history (aside from the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games) that no Americans were in the 400 final, and it was the first time since 1920 an American didn’t win a medal. Americans swept the event in 2004 and 2008.
American men swept the 400 hurdles in 2008. Four years later, only Michael Tinsley got on the podium, with a silver.
Usain Bolt received his gold medal for a scintillating 100-meter victory and Yohan Blake was bestowed with silver Monday on the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence — an occasion celebrated Aug. 6, 1962, inside the national track stadium in Kingston. Jamaica was the first of 10 Caribbean nations to declare independence from Great Britain, 18 years after the mother country had issued a plea throughout the Commonwealth for help in the post-World War II rebuilding effort. The first Jamaican immigrants arrived on the Empire Windrush steamship. Today, about 800,000 people of Jamaican heritage live in Britain. Jessica Ennis, who sent her country into rapture when she won the heptathlon, has a Jamaican father.
So, Jamaica (population 2.8million) had multiple reasons to celebrate. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won the 100, advanced in the 200 with the same time as Allyson Felix. Jamaica’s two-time Olympic champ Veronica Campbell-Brown and teammate Sherone Simpson were also in the mix.
Cuba’s Yarisley Silva placed second in the pole vault to American Jenn Suhr after world-record-holder Yelena Isinbayeva missed on her final attempt at 15-9.
Meanwhile, runners from the United States (population 311million) have won but a single sprint gold so far — Sanya Richards-Ross’ gold in the 400 meters. Richards-Ross spent her first 11 years in Jamaica.